The San Diego Police Homeless Outreach Team alongside several service providers evaluate homeless residents to see who is eligible for placement into shelters amid the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The number of arrests and tickets in San Diego fell dramatically after the pandemic hit and public health officials ordered people to stay home. But not all groups were impacted equally by the enforcement of those rules.

A VOSD analysis of San Diego Police Department crime data shows that Black San Diegans were cited with nearly 24 percent of all coronavirus-related offenses, despite being 6.5 percent of the population. In other words, one of our every four violations of various emergency orders went to a Black person.

It wasn’t just in the category of public health. At almost every level, from traffic violations to violent crime, Black San Diegans represented a disproportionately large share of the alleged offenders.



Khalid Alexander, founder of Pillars of the Community, a social justice organization, said he wasn’t surprised to learn about the figures.

“That’s reflective of the experience that I, and people who live in southeast San Diego, and honestly communities like southeast San Diego all over the world, have experienced,” he said.

David Loy, legal director at the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial counties, also said the post-COVID arrest data was unconscionable but consistent with other data he’s seen over the years. A previous VOSD analysis of police stop data from July 2018 to July 2019 revealed that Black drivers were more likely to be stopped than anyone else, but the searches resulted in lower or roughly the same rate of property seizures compared with other races. Those findings predated the pandemic and included both SDPD and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.

Between January and March 12, the day before the county’s shelter-in-place order went into effect, SDPD logged about 240 offenses on average every day, either through arrests or tickets. Between March 13 and May 30, they averaged 114 a day.

Arrests and tickets fell by half, and for nearly all categories of offenses. For example, between January and March 12, officers handed out 1,300 citations and arrests for loitering and trespassing. Between March 13 and May 30, that number dropped to 688.

Lt. Shawn Takeuchi, an SDPD spokesperson, said the city had made no changes to the way it goes about enforcing the laws on the books other than to require officers socially distance when possible and wear personal protective equipment. When asked why arrests and tickets have dropped by so much, he suggested I seek out a sociologist for comment.

Generally, the most common offense to spring up in the wake of the pandemic was a violation of the state emergency plan. The statute itself is fairly vague and Takeuchi did not respond to a follow-up request for clarification on what exactly it means to violate the state emergency orders.

Between January and June, Black San Diegans made up nearly 26 percent of all arrests and 14 percent of all citations.

After the pandemic hit, the data reveals especially great disparities in loitering and trespassing cases and disobeying a police officer. In both instances, Black San Diegans made up about 30 percent of all those cited.

While combing through the data, I spotted several other interesting trends.

Violent Crime Went Up

SDPD recorded 633 violent crimes before the pandemic and 707 after it began.

The number of domestic violence-related calls had dropped in February and March compared with the year before, but social workers expected it to rise as the pandemic wore on. And it appears that they were right.

The number of domestic violence-related reports rose slightly — especially offenses related to spousal abuse causing minor injury, which jumped from 121 to 199. General battery offenses, on the other hand, dropped from 105 cases reported to 69.

More Likely to Encounter Police, More Likely to Get Charged

I also separated out people whose names appeared four or more times in the data, often times for offenses typically reserved for the homeless.

In total, 345 people were arrested or cited four or more times, making up 1,798 of the 25,634 offenses logged by SDPD from January to June. They received 992 collective citations before the pandemic’s start and 806 after. Nearly 30 percent of all the repeat offenders were Black.

The most common offense for reported repeat violators, by far, was “unauthorized encroachment,” which appeared 1,076 times. The law prohibits placing any personal objects on public sidewalks except for loading or unloading merchandise. It was meant to target errant trash dumpsters, but has been used instead to target the homeless.

The number of people cited specifically with unauthorized encroachment dropped from 664 to 412 after the start of the pandemic, a smaller drop than in other categories.

“Lodging without consent” was cited 550 times, making it the next most common. It dropped from 381 appearances pre-pandemic to 169 during it. Citations for violating vehicle habitation ordinances, meanwhile, dropped from 33 to 12.

Police said in April they are easing up on citations related to homelessness. A City Council resolution passed in early April also encouraged the mayor to impose a moratorium on charging people for sleeping in vehicles for the duration of the pandemic.

But SDPD and the mayor have defended their current level of enforcement against unsheltered people, arguing that their presence on the streets may also result in bad public health outcomes.

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